GREENSBORO — The city’s immigrant and refugee community has endured an especially hard year during the pandemic, with higher rates of COVID-19 infection and little opportunity for many to protect themselves while working frontline jobs.
During this time, a little-known group called the International Advisory Committee has fought for ways to help thousands who live here with limited English skills and economic disadvantages.
Now, it’s the city’s turn to help the committee choose its five members for the next two years in a special election planned for next week.
“I think the (International Advisory Committee) is the bridge between the city and its immigrant citizens,” said Adamou Mohamed, a former chair of the group who was elected in 2015 and served for four years. “It also serves as an opportunity for the immigrant community to be involved and present ... a way for immigrants to be integrated into their new community here.”
The group meets every month.
Meetings are a mix of listening to concerns from the immigrant community and advising the City Council on issues affecting the nearly 11% of Greensboro residents who speak limited English. Because Greensboro has a history of accepting refugees from around the world, some 120 languages and dialects are spoken here.
Officials say that while other cities have similar boards, they can’t find another place in the country where the public elects members of its international committee.
The International Advisory Committee was created and appointed by City Council in 2008. Marikay Abuzuaiter, who is now a member of council, was appointed to the committee then and served as chairwoman for a year. She has since served as a liaison to the committee.
The story of Mohamed, who came to the U.S. from the West African country of Niger, is typical of many immigrants new to the city. He didn’t have any family connections or money when he arrived in 2001.
“I came without knowing anyone,” he said. “I was undocumented for some time until I was able to adjust my status. That experience really opened my eyes to the challenge many immigrants faced.”
In 2015, Mohamed worked with the city and other community leaders to restructure the International Advisory Committee as an elected body. He was elected to the committee during the first election in 2017.
Holding elections raises the profile of the group as well as encouraging strong leaders to emerge from the community, Mohamed said.
“When we say immigrant, it’s a diverse group of people,” he said. “We can look at refugees, immigrant visa holders, undocumented or not — the (International Advisory Committee) doesn’t make any distinction.”
Elections to become committee members are sometimes the first chance refugees and immigrants have to take part in a democracy.
“The first time we had this election there was a lot of excitement because this was the first time that leaders within the immigrant community had been elected,” Mohamed said. “Within a day and a half we had close to 500 people come out and vote for their leaders. This is a different experience for those of us who never have voted or their vote didn’t count.
“It’s a celebration of democracy for us.”
Abuzuaiter said the elections help draw people into a system that is difficult for immigrants to negotiate. Necessities such as housing leases, medical care and police interaction are difficult for people when they don’t know the customs and language of their adopted country.
“The International Advisory Committee is one of the gems of Greensboro I do believe,” Abuzuaiter said. “I don’t know of many cities that have such a strong leadership committee.”
Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.